Review: “The Moon Hunters” by Anya Pavelle

Originally posted Dec 4th, 2019. Revised and updated June 23rd, 2022.

Plot Summary (Caution Spoilers!):
The year is 2065, and a scientific research vessel is currently tracking dolphins affected by an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Deanne Ambagu and her nurse, Tomas, are examining the belongings of two assumed refugees they found drifting in a rather unusual boat. While both are unconscious, the doctor tries to find clues to the identities and origins of the two individuals. She finds a journal, a religious text, and references to a bizarre calendar so different from her own. In the journal, she finds mention of a pandemic 50 years prior that killed off a large portion of the world’s population. While the world has recovered and moved on, the doctor has a horrific realization: these two people are refugees from somewhere cut off since the pandemic.

Yet, when the strange woman with red hair and tan skin awakens, she is alarmed, surrounded by foreign materials like plastic and cotton. She panics at first. Once calmed, she slowly begins to tell her story of an island with three cities founded by three siblings named Samsara, Chanson, and Rekin Ani. Each sibling founds a city on the island and populates it with the friends they can save from their old home in California. Assuming that the world as they knew it has ended, they set up trade agreements and try to create a way for the world to continue in quarantine.

So why did the two flee? How did they end up where they are? Why are they together? The doctor has so many questions for the young woman as she awakes and reveals her name, Leilani.

Leilani was raised in the city founded by Rekin Ani, her great grandfather. The child of aristocratic parents that died of drowning, her only actual female role model is her space-case grandmother, a former queen. Her twin brother, Irin, is the head of the house by religious and cultural standards. Additionally, since the passing of their parents, he holds a place as a prince of their village and works as a leader, having to fulfill the duties expected of him.

This society has expectations of women as well that are rigid and unforgiving. Her best friend is a servant within her household yearning to change in status and live a more comfortable life – something Leilani promises she will help make possible at any cost, a promise that will lead to her downfall. But she is lucky! Her family and status have blessed her with a job, comfort, and finery that brings her some semblance of joy. Enough so that she is complacent with her situation.

There would be no story if things didn’t change, and so her brother, with her best interests at heart, makes it so. She is surprised to find that she is to change jobs and instead become Elegance, a member of the Queen’s Virtues. The Virtues represent the traits of the Ethereal Queen, the subservient female counterpart of Lehom, the volcano god. While this is beneficial for rank and status, there is something suspicious – Elegance is a position once held by the queen’s sister, and these are positions held for life. Why would the queen dismiss her sister?

So when the former Elegance suddenly shows up dead, and the King begins proposing changes to the government’s structure, a metaphorical and literal earthquake begins to shake things up on this island, putting the lives and safety of everyone in danger. In this incredible work of fiction, Leilani battles cognitive dissonance, finding herself beyond her religion, and discovering a world outside her own.

My Overall Response:
“The Moon Hunters” by Anya Pavelle is the best book I’ve read this year. Pavelle brings together stories within stories, showing the reader contrasting views, multi-dimensional characters, betrayal, forgiveness, and the representation of a grandmother’s love to a degree I have never before seen represented so poignantly in literature.

This book required writing at least 3 or 4 different books that merged into one cohesive story. Readers, this takes time and effort. This is not an easy task. It means that an author plays around in the world to ensure that the reader can too. Between writing the religious texts referenced, the journal entries of various people, the histories, and developing the context for all of this information to be discovered and put together, I’m sure there’s enough information for more books to be written about this island and the other characters mentioned. I would love to read more books about the people of Ani Island, particularly Samsara and Chanson. I have a fairly keen sense that the author has all of that information ready without asking based on the level of detail provided to readers.

One of the beautiful things about how Pavelle structured the story is by contrasting the different cities founded by different siblings. There’s Samsara, the liberal, compassionate, free-thinker whose journal calls her brother, Rekin, out on his crap. There’s Chanson, the mediator, and “middle ground” where the other two siblings’ cities must meet. Then there’s Rekin, the former Hollywood party-kid turned cult leader that has forced men and women into his ideal images of both.

The multi-dimensional characters make the story realistic, and the example I will choose to focus on is Leilani’s brother, Irin. Irin initially comes across as a complete asshole to an American reader. Except, as the story continues, this view changes. We realize behind the scenes that the reader doesn’t get to see Irin at his actual depth and instead sees him falter out of artifice for the benefit of his family and position of power. By the end of the book, I was proud of Irin’s growth and change to genuine expression.

One of the themes of the book is betrayal and forgiveness. What constitutes betrayal, and what deserves forgiveness? When does one let things go? When has someone been punished enough? As a reader, we see this repetition with differing results specific to the antagonist’s circumstances and Leilani’s internal state. This thematic element blesses a reader with reactional emotions such that we escape no consequences.

This is the second book I have reviewed that has made me pause for tears (the first being Then Came Darkness). The particular scene that made me cry was when Leilani’s grandmother reveals to her that she wants Leilani to know she can leave her life and have something else if she wants. She wants Leilani to see that she can have happiness and gives her the gives to secure that happiness. My grandmother did this for me.

I genuinely think this is the best book I’ve read this year and maybe one of the best humanist works I’ve ever read. I cannot recommend this book enough and hope that everyone reading this review purchases a copy.

LGBTQIA+ Friendly?
100%. One of the contrasting foundational elements of this book between societies shows heteronormativity versus complete acceptance of a spectrum of relationships. I would absolutely recommend any LGBTQIA+ reading list.

Grammar:
While I think the writing is otherwise impeccable, the author mentioned she found two errors in the printed version. As a result, I went back into my notes and decided to be nit-picky on the two mistakes I did find for this reason. I did see notes for:

  • page 231, where the word “had” is missing.
  • page 279, where the word “my” should be the word “I.”

To be clear – this book meets the 1: 10,000-word error editorial standard and the errors are not memorable.

Twilight Zone Moment:
The unanswered questions I have that I wish had been addressed more in the book are what are the stereotyped traits of the founding families, and how did the class structure of the Village of Lehom arise? Perhaps this is something that could better be addressed in prequels if Pavelle so chooses to indulge an eager fan.

Want to Know More About the Author?
To read more about Anya Pavelle, read more of their work, or contact them, you can visit their website or visit their Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. You can purchase the book on Amazon.

Also available from Anya Pavelle: “The Garden of Stone Houses” is available on Amazon.

Review: “A Twist of Starlight” by Betty Valentine

Originally posted November 8th, 2019, editied and updated June 22nd, 2022.

Summary (Warning: mild spoilers):

A Twist of Starlight” begins with the tale of three children, the death of a mother, and the childhood of an evil half brother.

A couple hundred years later, we encounter a group of three men, seemingly disconnected from the previous chapters, capturing a scene.

From these flickers emerges a beautiful scene of a loving single father taking his baby boy for a hike up his favorite mountain, where they then take a rest together. Afterward, he picks up his son to find a half acorn clutched in his infant’s tiny hand.

Then we meet David, the infant that was once carried up the mountain. Now living in America, he is at a stagnant point in his life: dead-end relationship and stable but no longer fulfilling career as a doctor. He reminisces about his life, thinking of home with nostalgia and fondness. With these flashbacks, readers are given little hints at a time that link back to the previous vignettes. He receives the tragic news that two people he cares for deeply are suffering from health trouble: his Uncle Marc and Uncle Hugh. These are the men that helped raise him. As he travels back to Wales to surprise his family and give himself a fresh start, he continues to share memories. The wooden toys Marc carved for him as a child. The wooden crib. The lessons Hugh taught him in his garden and the children of another family friend, Bernie, that were his siblings of sorts.

He arrives home to find another family friend, Roy, at the house and that the group traveled up the mountain for the Midsummer celebration before his unannounced arrival. Onward David goes to track down these old men. When he arrives at camp, that’s when things start getting weird.

After the laughter, stories, and booze by the campfire, David’s father – Jon – murders someone on the jetty by the pond. David is taken aback, and the whirlwind truly begins. From here, David learns this his father, Marc, Bernie, and Hugh are more than the people he thought they were. And so is he!

A funeral, a celebration of life, and a battle against evil forces bent on their destruction leads to David’s father finding true love and the loss of more than one significant family member. As time passes, David discovers a sense of purpose in his new community. Most of all, he finds the happiness he never knew was possible.

My Overall Response:

I love the world Betty Valentine spun together in her first book. Fantasy is hard. I hold a lot of respect for authors that take the time to create an imaginary world with different rules, history, and mechanics than our own. At first, she brings readers into a world not unlike their own after first providing beautiful descriptions and submerging vignettes of seemingly disconnected stories. Don’t worry – they’re all connected, eventually. 

I love the story. I love the characters. I love the plot. I love the way the beginning has seemingly discontinuous snapshots of the passage of time that each build on the other. I love the honoring of Icelandic influence. I love that there’s more than one big reveal for the reader. 

The descriptions in the book are phenomenal, and I found myself wanting more. Valentine has a unique gift for combining modern vernacular with fantasy in a poetic fashion that significantly benefits the story. There were times it was impossible to read the book without having an accent envelope my mind as a reader.

My primary criticism is that I felt like the action in the book was way too dense, and I found myself wanting more from the death scenes of characters. I want to emphasize that this is my personal opinion and that Young Adult readers would benefit from the way these death scenes are written.

I want the universe Valentine created to expand, grow, and get published more. I want to have someone else I can play with in this universe because it’s fun, unique, and exceptional. I have often felt as though the LGBTQIA+ audience does not have enough inclusive fantasy, and this book is an answer to that desire. I want people to be inspired to write their own fanfiction that takes place where the train line ends. 

I was excited to hear that Betty Valentine will soon be releasing her next book, Overture and Beginners (release date November 30, 2019). Please keep writing – I love your voice and what you bring to fantasy literature.

LGBTQIA+ Friendly?

Absolutely! One of the primary themes of the book is self-discovery and coming out. I would definitely recommend for a Young Adult LGBTQIA+ reading list.

Grammar:

Not a criticism, but an explanation for a feature of the book’s composition that gave me some trouble: the soft full-stop. On occasion, a reader will notice that there are full-stops mid-sentence followed by a lower case word. This is to indicate a pause. I love these unique features in writing and am excited to have read a book featuring such a linguistic treasure!

At times I did find the book to take the conversational narrative to an extreme. Still, I do not believe that this would cause too much impedance in a reader’s ability to enjoy the book. I do think that the conversational narrative lends itself really well to Young Adult audiences (13+ for Adult Themes).

Twilight Zone Moment:

This is the first book I am not going to declare any Twilight Zone Moments for. Anything remotely close added to the mystery, fantasy, and intrigue.

Want to know more about the author?

To read more about Betty Valentine you can visit her on Twitter. You can also read her profile on her publisher’s website, Green Cat Books, here. She recommends this publisher for new and emerging authors and I greatly appreciate her sharing this resource with the writing community.

“A Twist of Starlight” is available now through Green Cat Books and Amazon.

The follow-up, “A Twist in Stone,” is available now through Green Cat Books and Amazon.

“Overture and Beginners” is available now through Green Cat Books and Amazon.

Author Interview Series 2020: Craig Stewart

Craig Stewart
Craig Stewart’s Author Photo

I’m excited to introduce another Canadian author, Craig Stewart! With a background as a filmmaker and author, he takes a very visual approach to the horror genre and won the New Apple Literary Award of Excellence for Horror in 2018 for his book “Worship Me”. The following interview questions focus on this book – one that I will be reviewing soon. I hope you enjoy these answers as much as I have. These answers are direct quotes. If you would like more information on his books, you can view all of those available for purchase through amazon here. Additionally, you can visit their author website at www.everythingcraigstewart.com.

What are a few of your favorite things? How did these influence Worship Me?

Whiskers on kittens, but that has very little to do with Worship Me. I guess, if I’m being honest, Worship Me has less to do with my favorite things than it does my least favorite things. Like most horror stories, it’s meant to purge the demons from our psyche, and the demons in Worship Me have to do with faith vs. flesh; it started with me questioning: how can someone reconcile spiritual belief with the bloody, bodily reality of being alive? And so, the setting became a small country church, like the one I was taken to as a child, and the invading force became a powerful, ancient entity that could reduce people to their bowels and bones. Through the trials of the characters, I tried to make this book an exploration of what living and dying really is; something I had been struggling with at the time, having been going through my own grieving process after the death of my sister. Really, this book wouldn’t have been written if I didn’t have that sorrow within me. It needed out, so I let it out. Otherwise, maybe it really would have been about whiskers and kittens.

Do you have any inside jokes with friends and/or family members that you like to sneak into your content?

I love inside jokes. There’s not as many as I’d like there to be in Worship Me, due to its tone, however, the layout of the church in the book is based off the real St. Paul’s United Church that I attended as a child. And, I always try to find a way to fit in the name of my high school drama teacher, who was the first person to really take a chance on me, creatively.

What do you find is the hardest part of the writing process?

Trying not to hate the world for not letting you just sit down and write. I often find myself in the middle of making dinner, angry at my food, because I just had a brilliant idea (or so I think at the time), and this food, sizzling away, mocking me with its little pops and fizzes, is keeping me from doing what I need to do. So, having an understanding that I need to eat, I guess that’s what I’m saying is the hardest.

How long did it take you to write Worship Me from the first idea to publication date?

Wow, great question. In total I’d say about seven years from its original conception. Originally, I wrote it as a screenplay and adapted the book from that.

What advice do you have to new authors?

Most likely, everyone is going to say “No.” In order to survive those rejections, make sure what you write is something you really believe in. Don’t write for someone else. Just write honestly, and then hope someone cares. Maybe someone will!

Who do you think the biggest unexpected allies in writing a book are?

Fellow writers. There’s a caricature out there of ‘the writer’ as a jealous, lonely narcissist – that, of course, exists – but, for the most part, all of the writers I have met have been brilliant, beautiful and generous people. They know the struggles and are more than willing to reach down and help to pull you back up. They might even dust you off, if you’re lucky.

Who do you think the biggest unexpected enemies in writing a book are?

Probably yourself. Though, maybe that’s not terribly unexpected. It’s hard to be heard in these loud times, and a lot of writers think, “Well, if I haven’t sold a million copies yet, then it’s my own failing, I’m just no good, like I always feared…Guess I’ll go back to canning tomatoes.” Only to realize that robots can tomatoes now (unless they’re genetically modified tomatoes – those ones can themselves). Anyway, chances are, your work is just getting lost in the cacophony of the modern age. The real truth is that people aren’t reading as much as they used to for a plethora of reasons. So, you may never sell a million copies. Don’t let that be your motivation. Again, write the book you’d want to read, then your biggest enemy won’t have anything to say.

What was your biggest inspiration?

Well, Worship Me, as mentioned earlier, was born out of grief, and my long journey losing my faith. Really, all the horror in the book was inspired by that painful process, which should help to explain why the book is so filled with pain. In terms of influences, I’ve always been a hardcore Clive Barker enthusiast. He’s the real reason I fell in love with writing, and with monsters. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead filled my head with nightmares as a childand sometimes as an adult. I always loved the claustrophobic storytelling with all those characters stuck together in a little house. That, certainly, influenced Worship Me. King’s The Mist, for sure.

If you could send a letter back in time to yourself when you were first starting to write Worship Me, what would it say?

Hi Craig, this is Craig. You invent time travel in the future. Also, don’t be afraid to show your heart – they’re much easier to rip out that way. And that’s what this story’s about.

Why do you write?

Like most authors, I write out of necessity. On the selfish side, the act of writing just makes my mind feel better – it helps sort out the chaos. On the slightly less selfish side, I can remember being a young gay kid growing up in a small town and feeling awkward and out of place… then, I found the horror section of the local video store, and it was filled with angsty stories of other outcasts that tore through heteronormativity with chainsaws and butcher knives. I felt scared, because it was unearthing feelings that I didn’t even know I had. I felt understood; I felt at home. I’d like to try to create works that could be a home for other outcasts.

Author Interview Series 2020: Alyssa Marie Bethancourt

I first met Alyssa in 2011 while living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the time I could not fathom the fantasy world living within her brain that I would read from the pages of MORNNOVIN 9 years later and it was not a primary topic of our conversation. Over the first few of those 9 years Alyssa’s life turned upside-down and inside-out as I watched an acquaintance go through what must have been one of the most difficult periods of her life. Like a phoenix, Alyssa rose up. In my opinion, she is living proof that the dream of publishing a book can come true even in the most difficult of circumstances with the support of a community and, most of all, if you believe in yourself.

You can visit Alyssa Bethancourt’s website here to keep up to date on her current projects and you can purchase your copy of MORNNOVIN here.

  1. What are a few of your favorite things? How did these influence your book?

“Elves, swords, trees, dogs, music, wordplay, water, and the freedom to be odd. I feel like, for the most part, my interest in these things is almost immediately evident to anyone who reads my writing. MORNNOVIN doesn’t have as many dogs in it as I would like, though. I could also say that indirectly, through the writing process, the book was shaped on a molecular level by my exposure (or lack of) to these things as the work progressed. And many scenes only came together because of the music I was listening to as I brought them to life.”

  1. Do you have any inside jokes with friends and/or family members that you like to sneak into your content?

“Eh, not really? There is exactly one inside joke in MORNNOVIN, but the only person who understood it has since made a dramatically terrible exit from my life. Perhaps a sign that I’d better write to please myself alone from now on. At the risk of sounding maudlin, writing is a solitary endeavor and I’ve always done it in spite of the people around me, (especially family,) not with or for them. I do have some support now in the form of a writing critique group and a wonderful spouse who is my biggest fan, but that’s a very recent development.” 

  1. What do you find is the hardest part of the writing process?

“To quote writer Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” 

This probably sounds boring, but the hardest part of the writing process is literally just figuring out and writing down what happens. I mean, broad strokes are fine, but then you have to sit in front of the blank page and answer the question of how to show that taking place, scene after scene, for an entire novel. Elf princess saves the world from certain doom, but like, how? Where? What does she do? What are the scenes you have to write? She has to get from here to there, but how much of that do you talk about? Do you talk about the actual steps? (No, obviously not.) How much do you describe? How much do you cut away from because it’s unnecessary? Just thinking about this is giving me Book Three stress. lol”

  1. How long did it take you to write this book from the first idea to publication date?

“There are two answers to this question.

The short answer is that I scribbled down the first exploratory scenes sometime mid-2008, and I wrote the very last scene of the final chapter on December 16th, 2014. So 6-and-a half-ish years to write, then I took some time off before editing, edited for a year, queried for a while, and finally published last year in 2019. Eleven years. Damn.

The longer answer is that I started writing the very first stories about Loríen when I was ten years old, back in 1989. It didn’t take long for those stories to become a novel; I think I finished the very first version of proto-MORNNOVIN (it had a different name back then, but the broad strokes were the same) within a year or so. It was awful, naturally. On top of that, I lost my only copy. I’d rewritten it completely by the time I was sixteen. That version, too, was embarrassing, but by that point I was deeply committed to these characters and their struggles. I rewrote it again in my early twenties. That draft sat in a chest in my house for more than a decade until I gave it one final chance to be the sweeping epic I knew it could be, when I started working on the now-published rewrite in 2008. So… from first inception in 1989 to publication in 2019? That’s thirty years. I don’t know if that’s a wow or a yikes.”

  1. What advice do you have to other new authors?

“Oh, I think other people have already said just about everything that’s worth listening to on the subject of writing. I doubt I have anything to add other than listen to those guys, then do your own thing. But above all, you can’t be a writer if you don’t write, so write. On the subject of publishing? Like, being an author? Shit, I still don’t know anything there. The only advice I can really offer is to find your own path and try not to let the fear paralyze you.”

  1. Who do you think the biggest unexpected allies in writing a book are?

“All of the authors of all of the stories you’ve ever read in your life – and I include fanfiction authors in this. You can attend all the creative writing courses in the world, but until you’ve really absorbed a broad spectrum of what other storytellers have tried out in the wild, you can’t internalize the reality of what works and what doesn’t. And you should always be reading more, always trying to learn something new either about writing, or about people and the world, or about who you are as a writer/reader. Authors who say they never read are not to be trusted and certainly not to be taken seriously. There’s no reason to pretend you’re inventing the craft when every storyteller from the beginning of time is out there ready to be your guide through the darkness.”

  1. Who do you think the biggest unexpected enemies in writing a book are?

“That’s easy: 1. yourself, and 2. everyone else.”

  1. What was your biggest inspiration?

“Without question, J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanted to write my own fantasy stories from the very first time my mom read THE HOBBIT aloud to me, when I was a toddler.”

  1. If you could send a letter back in time to yourself when you were first starting to write this book, what would it say?

“Hm. I may be a fantasy author, but I’m also a sci-fi reader. I know better than to try to affect the timeline. The most I could safely say to Past Me would be something generic like, “Believe in your words and don’t give up,” because it’s been a hell of a rocky road getting here.”

  1. Why do you write? (Optional)

“Because I have to. Sharks have to keep swimming, and writers have to keep writing. 

Honestly? I just can’t imagine not writing. There have been several points in my life where I’ve melodramatically declared that I’m never writing again, and it never sticks. I could just as easily declare that I’m not going to eat anymore, or breathe, or have red blood cells. I don’t get to decide any of that. I’m a writer, and that’s just how it is. I write because I need to.”